2016-06-09 / Front Page

Open Space Plan Nears Completion

By Barry Bridges

The Newport Open Space Partnership is heading into the final phases of producing a plan to support the long-term future of the city’s trees, parks, and open spaces.

On Monday, June 6, a crowd of around 100 attended the third and final community meeting to discuss the 10-year master plan under development. It is expected to be completed by early August.

A combined effort of the City of Newport, the Newport Tree and Open Space Commission, the Aquidneck Land Trust, the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission, and the Newport Tree Society, the partnership has been engaged for about a year in creating a written vision for the long-term sustainability and stewardship of the city’s open spaces.

Sasaki Associates, a Watertown, Mass.-based urban planning and design firm, was brought on as the lead consultant. Its work is being underwritten by the Alletta Morris McBean Charitable Trust, the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, and the Prince Charitable Trusts.

The initiative is being described as the first citywide open space project since Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1913 plan that led to now-familiar cityscapes such as Miantono- mi Park and Almy Pond.

Lilly Dick, president of the Newport Tree Society and a member of the partnership steering committee, said that one of the key elements during the past year has been the public’s input. “We want to move together toward a common goal of improving our public spaces,” she said.

The plan focuses on larger themes of the waterfront, parks, and connectivity, and defines “open space” broadly to include areas such as beaches, sidewalks, bicycle lanes, the Harbor Walk, the Cliff Walk, plazas, sidewalk cafes, and cemeteries.

Sasaki consultants Jason Hellendrung, Ben Boisclair, and Jill Dixon presented the work done to date, and described five overarching goals that would contribute to open space success: (1) great parks and open spaces; (2) an equitable system for recreation and tree access for all residents, no matter where they live; (3) a connected system, with amenities conducive to walking and biking; (4) a resilient environmental system; and (5) creating a living legacy with legally protected sustainable open space.

Resident surveys have shown that more Newport residents would use parks and open spaces more frequently if they were closer to home, and this is a particular equitable concern in the North End, considering its population.

Hellendrung reported that the North End is home to 44 percent of the city’s residents. For his company’s analysis, the North End refers to the northern Newport census tract, which includes some areas north and west of Warner Street, such as portions of the Kerry Hill/ Van Zandt and Broadway neighborhoods.

“A new park is a critical need here,” said Hellendrung, who also specified other needs in light of the population density, such as playgrounds, basketball courts, soccer fields, baseball fields, picnic structures, community gardens, and better waterfront access.

Elsewhere in the city, opportunities include safer cycling zones, preserving natural areas, and planning for sea level rise.

As for a better connection between Newport neighborhoods, two major proposals are a “Rail with Trail,” a shared-use bike lane and multipurpose path to link downtown with the North End, and creating a more continuous user-friendly Harbor Walk.

The city’s tree canopy is a mainstay of the environmental resiliency objective. With impervious surfaces covering 35 percent of Newport, there is a need to increase nature-based solutions to water quality.

“Green infrastructure can include simple actions such as planting trees and reducing pavement,” said Boisclair.

He described how trees can have dramatic environmental and practical impacts. One tree absorbs over 5,400 gallons of stormwater in the course of a year, and a young tree has the net cooling effect equivalent to 10 room-sized air conditioners operating 20 hours a day. Trees can also increase home values by four to 15 percent.

Although Newport enjoys a rich history with its trees and boasts four professionally-accredited arboreta, some areas of the city lack tree cover. The open space plan would prioritize the completion of a citywide tree inventory, focus on creating a more diverse urban forest, and create canopy targets for different neighborhoods.

“This is the beginning of a longterm conversation on open space,” said Dixon.

“I must say that this is one of the best projects I’ve worked on,” said the Newport Tree Society’s Executive Director Tina Dolen, who is co-managing the initiative with Dawn Euer. “The energy of the five agencies working together has been great. Everyone brought something to the table.”

As far as next steps when the report is finalized in a few weeks, Dolen told Newport This Week, “We hope to receive the City Council’s approval through a resolution supporting the document, and will then begin developing a management plan for the identified longterm projects.”

She added that the master plan will include a section on best practices that will help to standardize processes moving forward.

Sasaki also lent its expertise to Newport officials as they work to complete a required update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Additional information on the open space project may be referenced at newportopenspace.org.

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